How Laura Ashley is capitalizing on its vintage creds to revive its brand
In 2020 Laura Ashley filed for bankruptcy – now the quintessential British textile brand is back and is leveraging its popularity in the vintage market to recruit a new generation of fans. Vice-president Poppy Marshall-Lawton shares her plans to build the brand back braver.
Uncommon brings back 1975 Laura Ashley quote ‘Unashamedly Romantic’ / Uncommon
Laura Ashley was founded in London in 1953 and is best known for its floral prints and Victorian-esque home and clothing. While the brand’s relevance has waned over the past two decades, leading to its financial troubles, Laura Ashley items do big business on the vintage and second-hand market, something which has brought a new and unexpected audience to the heritage brand.
“We’ve got that completely untapped customer who is snapping stuff up on Vinted and eBay,” vice-president Poppy Marshall-Lawton says. “I don't know whether she’s raided her mum’s loft and there is this lovely tie back, or if it’s what she used to have in her bedroom as a child, and she’s just bought her first house and thought I’ll go back and do that.”
Historically the Laura Ashley shopper has been older women but now 50% of its customer base are in the 30-55 bracket and the other half 55 and above. “We’ve just got the most incredible range of a customer to engage and sometimes it’s not even with a product we're manufacturing now, but that love of the brand is really special,” Marshall-Lawton says.
Laura Ashley collapsed in 2020 right at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic shuttering its 150 stores. The business had been struggling long before with 40 stores having shut in 2018 and a costly expansion into tea rooms and hotel rooms further adding to its financial woes.
In April 2020 the investment firm Gordon Brothers acquired the name, archives and intellectual property and kicked off a new business model ditching bricks and mortar retail to operate purely as a third-party license partner.
“To the customer, it is the same as it always was but now it’s just a different kind of business model,” Marshall-Lawton says. “That feels like how Laura Ashley started herself and we’ve almost gone back to what made it work in the first place.”
Next is Laura Ashley’s main retailer partner .It has in-store displays in 60 locations but the company also has deals with the likes of John Lewis and Boots. The team has also developed a network of around 600 independent shops that hold Laura Ashley products.
“We’ve got a lot more touchpoints than Laura Ashley previously had. Before you had to walk into a Laura Ashley branded door but now you can connect with the brand in lots of different ways,” Marshall-Lawton says.
Influencers and brand collaborations
Marshall-Lawton oversees the brand and marketing teams which are responsible for pulling the collections together, managing the social media marketing and brand photography.
Laura Ashley has been leaning heavily on influencers and its fan community to get the message out about its latest collections. Marhsall-Lawton says that Facebook fan groups are a great way to engage with customers and gather insights to inform products – some have over 30,000 people in them. Facebook ads generate some of Laura Ashley’s best results she reveals.
Then there are brand collaborations with the likes of menswear brand Rag & Bone, Lucky Brand jeans and the more expected Joanie where the two brands teamed up for a range of prairie-inspired dresses.
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The collaboration strategy is key to ensuring Laura Ashley speaks to new audiences. “I’m pushing the team to be braver and go for it and have a bit more fun,” Marshall-Lawton says. When asked what partnerships Marshall-Lawton would explore at Laura Ashley, she offered Palace skateboards as an example. “I would love to see something unexpected from Laura Ashley,” Marshall-Lawton adds.
This year Laura Ashley also sponsored the RHS Royal Chelsea Flower Show. The immersive activation at the event gave Laura Ashley fans a chance to speak to the designers. Marshall-Lawton teased that there will be another event in 2024 for customers to engage in person with the brand.
Outside of Laura Ashley’s in-house marketing operations, Next also markets directly to its customers by way of hosting the Laura Ashley e-commerce site. The Next hosted site is where Laura Ashley gets the most of its customer insights.
Laura Ashley tasked the agency Uncommon to develop its 70th anniversary campaign. The agency’s concept was to go back to the archives (which are hidden inside an abandoned salt mine in Wales) and discover historic prints.
Ben Golik is creative partner at Uncommon. He says: “The power of the brand is in that incredible archive of patterns, which is why we focused on the patterns and we didn't put the product in the campaign at all.”
When doing the consumer research for the campaign, Golik was struck by the words that were used to describe Laura Ashley, words like ‘flowery’, ‘gentle’, ‘pretty’ and ‘nice’. “Often though those words can be used quite pejoratively, quite dismissively, they can be used as an insult,” Golik says. The ambition of the campaign was to reclaim those words. “They’re all strong, wonderful, powerful words and leaning into it rather than away from it and just going for what the brand is always been about,” he says.
That is when Uncommon landed on the campaign title ‘Unashamedly Romantic’ which derived from a 1975 quote from Laura Ashley. “Unashamedly romantic is such a powerful thing to say, to just own what you do, regardless of changing times and changing trends. There is something timeless about that,” Golik says.
Earlier in the month, Laura Ashley and Uncommon opened a pop-up in London for fans and influencers to share their stories of the brand alongside screen printing workshops for kids. There was also an out-of-home campaign using Laura Ashley wallpaper with copy printed reading ‘This world needs more nice’ and ‘Proud to be pretty’.
What’s next for Laura Ashley?
After an initial focus on homewares, Laura Ashley is now gearing up for a return to womenswear. An exclusive clothing line to Next will bring the famous name back into womenswear for spring/summer 2024. On the delay to launch fashion Marshall-Lawton says: “It was about getting fashion right and not just bringing out another archive collection – to give fashion its moment.”
Marshall-Lawton is planning to launch other categories in the UK, although wouldn’t reveal which ones, and then focus on international growth with Australia and India priorities. She is also in early talks for brands to license the prints only rather than co-creating products, similar to printmaker Liberty.
While the pop-up was considered a success Marshall-Lawton was firm that Laura Ashley will not return to a brick-and-mortar business model although teased that the business is considering a franchise model for independent retailers although nothing concrete yet.
“There have always been these stories of ‘Laura Ashley is back‘, but we keep on coming back every five years, every couple of years ‘we’re back’ but I don’t think it's ever gone away,” Marshall-Lawton says.